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The Power of Speaking Up

June 4th, 2020

The Power of Speaking Up, my perspective. By Deborah Calmeyer 

Sunrise has always been my favorite time of day. Not only for its immense beauty and drama when witnessed from your tent on the African plains but because it’s the beginning of a new day, a chance for happiness and improvement. It’s is a symbol of birth and rebirth, of awakening, and for me personally it symbolizes safety.  It’s hardly surprising, given my childhood during the Rhodesian Bush War.  Sunrise meant that we had got through another dangerous night.

There is a lot in that name, the Rhodesian Bush War.   To others it was the Zimbabwe War of Liberation which is what I recognize it as now. Back then, black liberation forces known to me as ‘terrorists’ from neighboring Mozambique and Zambia would ambush our farm regularly. We lived with a curfew (similar to right now) from 6pm to 6am, army tanks roamed our farm and my dad always slept with rifle and Agric alert on. My mum, who was 29 and lived in the capital city of Salisbury, now Harare, did her daily jog around the neighborhood with an Uzi submachine gun. This was my ‘normal at 5 years old’. If the alarm went off at night my job – as instructed by my father – was to grab my sister and leopard-crawl across the floor to his room. To this day I have nightmares of being taken from my bed by soldiers.  What I did not realize then was that mine was a life of immense privilege, not least because a black child could have been shot on sight for just leaving their family’s kraal at that time. Of course, as a child you are just in it, believing in your own worldview laminated into your brain by your situation. 

Despite the trauma ridden nights, I remember my younger years as idyllic with time spent water-skiing on the crocodile infested waters of Lake Kariba. I recall the joy (laced with occasional fear) of nights on our houseboat, sleeping out on the deck under the stars, listening to the roar of lions – all wonderful childhood memories seared into the happy part of my life’s movie.  Once again, my point of view as I saw it, without any context whatsoever.

It was only years later that I realized many heart-breaking and sobering truths about that time and those childhood memories.  That all people were not treated equally in my homeland or where I finished my schooling in South Africa still under Apartheid at the time.  That people were forcibly moved from their homeland to create the beautiful Lake Kariba  of which I have such fond memories. Built between 1955 and 1959, it is the largest manmade lake in the world and supplies all the power for Zimbabwe as well as some incredible tourism but at great cost. It was the scheme of the former self-governing British colonies (now, respectively, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi). I say scheme because it’s hard to make sense of how the creation of this lake was ever allowed. It rendered 57,000 Tonga people who had lived there for generations homeless.  While Operation Noah saw over 6,000 large mammals and countless smaller ones carried to land in boats, many more perished. That innocent people suffered so much loss through an organized flood is incomprehensible. And yet, as we know human behavior repeats these mistakes time and again, with the consequences collective and universal.

Moving to New York 20 years ago has been an education for which I am very grateful.   I had not expected to find racism as widespread as it is in America, the Land of the Free.  The learning continues.  Just last year I found myself blown away by The New York Times’ 1619 Project, an initiative that aims to reframe America’s history ‘by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.’ I’m ashamed to admit that before then, I hadn’t known that 1619 was the year in which a ship called The White Lion arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. This was the year before the Mayflower made landfall and crossing the Atlantic wiped out their past far more comprehensively than Lake Kariba drowning the rightful inheritance of the Tonga people.  As Jake Silverstein, the NYT’s Editor-in-Chief explained: ‘Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: it is the country’s very origin.’

I remember exactly where I was when I heard a portion of the project’s first essay. I was walking back from my office in New York listening to the podcast on my headphones when what follows, literally stopped me in my tracks:

“…The teal eternity of the Atlantic Ocean
had severed them so completely
that it was as if nothing had ever existed before.
And everything they ever knew
had simply vanished from the earth.
Some could not bear the realization.
They heaved themselves over the walls of wooden ships
to swim one last time with the ancestors.

Others refused to eat, mouths clamped shut until their hearts gave out.
But in the suffocating hull of a ship called The White Lion,
bound for where they did not know.
Those who refused to die, understood that the men and women
chained next to them in the dark were no longer strangers.
They had been forged in trauma and made black
by those who believed themselves to be white.
And where they were headed, black equals slave.
So, these were their people now.”

I have long known race to be a social construct designed to divide the ‘us’ from the ‘them’. My parents grew up in Apartheid South Africa. I witnessed Mandela’s release from prison on a TV screen at boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.  Nevertheless, as a white New Yorker born in Africa and with African heritage going back to 1688, it took the telling of these 1619 Project essays, for me to find the courage to confront the safety that the privilege of my own racial identity affords me in America, the “Land of the Free”.

 Last week when George Floyd’s appalling and senseless death became yet another statistic in this country’s brutal and divisive narrative on race, I was forced once more to confront that 400 years on from 1619,  racial fear, hatred and our tolerance of inequality as a society remains wholly unchecked.

While I’m enormously proud of the work that we at ROAR AFRICA do to support and empower the conservation of our wild spaces and the African communities in which we work, I know that I need to do more and be more – both here and at home in Africa. For America’s problems are the world’s problems – racism is everywhere. As Angela Davis said so eloquently: ‘In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.’ To listen, learn, speak up and show up on issues around racial discrimination. That is my commitment both personally and professionally. It is what gives me hope along with every sunrise.

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